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No boom yet, but Ritchie County remains optimistic

By Staff | Apr 25, 2012

HARRISVILLE – Gas and oil industry officials often talk about the economic boom Marcellus Shale will bring to the state of West Virginia.

Pipelines, processing plants and other facilities tied in with the shale sources purportedly represent billions of dollars in commitments and investments.

Officials in Ritchie County are waiting and remain hopeful that such development will come.

County Commission President Lavada Williamson said Marcellus Shale development isn’t big business in Ritchie County, at least not yet.

“There is a potential boom,” Williamson said.

According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, 53 gas and oil wells are active in Ritchie County, including two commercial brine disposal wells.

Ritchie County Assessor Arlene Mossor said about 10,000 wells dot the county landscape.

“I didn’t think they could put another hole in the ground,” she said.

None of those wells are into the Marcellus Shale and many are old with little to no production. Companies have reported production losses of almost $50 million over the last two years from Ritchie County wells.

Mossor said the value of oil and gas production in the county dropped $26 million in 2010-2011 and an additional $23 million in 2011-2012.

The effects of the lack of production are far-reaching. The county budget has been hardest hit.

As a result of the devaluation of the mineral properties, the county is dealing with a budget that has lost more than $175,000 since 2010. For a county with an average annual budget of $3 million that’s significant, and affects funding for the libraries and school system.

According to information from WorkForce West Virginia, Ritchie County’s unemployment rate for January 2012 is 8.2 percent. That’s an improvement from the last two years (8.9 percent in 2011 and 9.7 in 2010) but it is still above the state average of 7.8 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau said the county population grew 1 percent between 2000 and 2010 (10,343 compared to 10,449,) but there has been little growth in school enrollment. From the numbers from the West Virginia Department of Education, the county saw a decrease of more than 80 students between 2009 and 2012.

But things are happening in Ritchie County that signal growth in the oil and gas industry.

The county courthouse in Harrisville is abuzz with activity. Abstractors who prepare and certify the condensed history of ownership of real estate are flooding the building to conduct business and research available land.

“It’s busy, very busy,” County Commissioner Judy Watson said.

Some abstractors have even set up shop inside the courthouse, setting up tables and chairs in the basement, Commissioner Sam Rogers said.

Because the increased interest in the mineral rights and properties, Williamson said the revenue on document fees is $25,000 above its $60,000 projection.

Once-vacant storefronts in Harrisville are filling up. Steptoe and Johnson, a law firm, has opened an office in a former funeral home. There are signs advertising space to lease or rent in several other buildings.

“There are a lot of out-of-state license plates around,” Williamson said.

It’s not just carpetbaggers invading the county.

In a pristine blue building on the main drag in Harrisville sits Hawkeye Research Inc. Just a stone’s throw from the courthouse, the company has been in business in the county for more than 30 years and provides abstractors, oil and gas leases and right-of-way negotiations.

“We have a lot of out-of-staters, but we equally have a number of locals being employed,” Williamson said.

According to WorkForce figures there are 1,000 fewer employees in Ritchie County’s mining and logging industry in 2011 compared to 2010 (1,520 vs. 1,620).

With regard to unemployment, Ritchie County is in better shape than many of its neighbors, which are among the worst employment rates in the state. Calhoun County is the state’s highest (13.2 percent) along with Roane (12.9), Wirt (12.4) and Wetzel (12.1). Pleasants (10) and Tyler (10.7) counties also both have double-digit unemployment rates.

But Williamson said officials are seeing more employment in the area.

“One drilling company I have talked to said they can’t get enough people,” he said.

“Around this courthouse you will see a lot of out-of-state license plates, but there are abstractors coming in, working for the oil and gas industry. And we also have companies who have moved into the county.”

In Smithville, Frank Barker has expanded his gas station, store, restaurant and two-room bed and breakfast – collectively known as the Smithville Mall -to meet the expected expansion of the gas and oil industry in the area.

Barker, who has expanded his business over the last few years, said customers have been steady.

“It’s not overwhelming, but it has been a plus,” he said. “The oilfields have profited us.”

Williamson, who lives in Smithville, said Barker has his finger on the pulse on the oilfields. And Barker thinks things are improving.

“I think it is going to get better,” he said. “The Marcellus isn’t going yet into this area.”

Williamson said in addition to Marcellus Shale, the county is also rich in Utica Shale reserves.

“We don’t see it going away,” she said. “Hopefully, it will be getting bigger.”

Originally published in The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.